December 13, 2019
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Inside one man’s effort to bring black theater to Maine, and how he’s getting local kids to see it

Courtesy of John Graves Productions
Courtesy of John Graves Productions
Scenes from "Black Kid Joy," an original play by Philadelphia's nonprofit theater company John Graves Productions.

On the far reaches of the country, a lot of national-caliber art productions tend to overlook Maine. But sometimes there’s a show that’s so important for Mainers to see, that you go the extra mile to bring it here.

“Being in Maine, there’s almost no representation for young black kids,” Joshua Hughes said. “When I look around, I see people who struggle with the sense of identity.”

An artist, musician and father who moved to Portland from Philadelphia in 2010, Hughes has taken on an ambitious project to address that this weekend.

Hughes learned last winter of “Black Kid Joy,” a sprawling, high-sensory musical theater production in Philadelphia featuring an all-black cast of 40 singers, dancers and musicians — including three lead roles for young people aged 9 to 11.

Courtesy of John Graves Productions
Courtesy of John Graves Productions
Scenes from "Black Kid Joy," an original play by Philadelphia's nonprofit theater company John Graves Productions.

He was so impressed that he contacted the show’s writer and director, John Graves III, about the likelihood of bringing the entire show to Portland, pitching him with a complex marketing plan designed to get local black kids to the theater to see the production.

Hughes realized that a conventional ticketing process alone wouldn’t build his desired audience, nor connect the financial dots. So he organized a sponsorship program. He told Graves he’d plan to raise money from crowdfunding and social media channels, asking patrons to purchase advance tickets that Hughes would then distribute to the audience he wanted to build. While anyone can appreciate the show, Hughes felt that those who would be most impacted by the production — African-American young people — were also those he felt need most help getting to the seats.

Hughes started a GoFundMe campaign in May, asking donors to contribute to sponsorship packages for “Black Kid Joy”. That campaign raised more than $3,800. Leigh Kellis, the owner of Holy Donut, started one too, which raised another $1,000 toward tickets. Kellis has helped Hughes hand out tickets (and doughnuts) to young people in Kennedy Park.

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Days before the show opens, Hughes said they have distributed 125 tickets. The For Us By Us Fund, an organization dedicated to building capacity for POC-led events in Maine, have sponsored 30 tickets as of Wednesday, and are fielding requests for more.

The plan was enough to convince Graves to commit to bringing his cast of performers for a one-weekend show. Having been remounted for a run at the Arts Bank Theatre in Philadelphia last month, “Black Kid Joy” is set to be performed on the main stage at Portland Stage.

Courtesy of John Graves Producti
Courtesy of John Graves Producti
Scenes from "Black Kid Joy," an original play by Philadelphia's nonprofit theater company John Graves Productions.

John W. Graves III founded the Philadelphia nonprofit theater company John Graves Productions in 2007. “Black Kid Joy” first premiered in December of 2016. In its plot, interspersed with music, comedy and dancing, a young boy named Chris experiences a tragedy of racial violence, after which he is transported to a fantastical place called “Melanin.” Here, he encounters historical figures such as Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mamie Till, the mother of murdered 14-year-old boy Emmett Till.

A local review of the Philadelphia production described the show as having “gospel elements” and “soulful melodies,” with a mixture of traditional African and contemporary dance with modern choreography.

The outreach strategy that Hughes facilitated in Maine is similar to the one Graves employed to get people to the original Philadelphia show.

“We don’t have a children’s audience, we have an adult audience,” said Graves of his theater company. “We knew how inspirational and lively this show would be for the next generation, but we had to get them here. Kids don’t have the money, especially inner city youth. Once they were there, it was those kids that brought back their sisters and brothers and mothers. It wasn’t about the message of JGP, but ‘Black Kid Joy’.”

“Black Kid Joy” takes place July 5-7 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave. Shows are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20-30.



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